What is HIV?

The Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV) attacks the white blood cells and damages the immune system, causing difficulty in fighting infection.

HIV infection happens in three stages. Without treatment, it will get worse over time and eventually overwhelm your immune system.

How do you get HIV?

You can get HIV through contact with infected blood and body fluids (semen, vaginal fluids), from sharing needles and from mother to baby during delivery. You can also get it with a blood transfusion in countries that do not pre-test blood for transfusion.

What are the symptoms?

Often there are no obvious symptoms for years.

The symptoms of HIV can vary greatly from person to person. No two people with HIV will likely experience the exact same symptoms. However, HIV will generally follow this pattern:

1. acute illness
2. asymptomatic period
3. advanced infection

Acute illness
Approximately 80 percent of people who contract HIV experience flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks. This flu-like illness is known as acute HIV infection. Acute HIV infection is the primary stage of HIV and lasts until the body has created antibodies against the virus.

The most common symptoms of this stage of HIV include:

  • body rash
  • fever
  • sore throat
  • severe headaches

Less common symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • ulcers in the mouth or on the genitals
  • muscle aches
  • joint pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • night sweats

Symptoms typically last one to two weeks. Anyone who has these symptoms and thinks they may have contracted HIV should consider scheduling an appointment with their healthcare provider to get tested.

Symptoms specific to men
Symptoms of HIV are generally the same in women and men. One HIV symptom that is unique to men is an ulcer on the penis.

HIV may lead to hypogonadism, or poor production of sex hormones, in either sex. However, hypogonadism’s effects on men are easier to observe than its effects on women. Symptoms of low testosterone, one aspect of hypogonadism, can include erectile dysfunction (ED).

Asymptomatic period
After the initial symptoms disappear, HIV may not cause any additional symptoms for months or years. During this time, the virus replicates and begins to weaken the immune system. A person at this stage won’t feel or look sick, but the virus is still active. They can easily transmit the virus to others. This is why early testing, even for those who feel fine, is so important.

Advanced infection
It may take some time, but HIV may eventually break down a person’s immune system. Once this happens, HIV will progress to stage 3 HIV, often referred to as AIDS. AIDS is the last stage of the disease. A person at this stage has a severely damaged immune system, making them more susceptible to opportunistic infections.

Opportunistic infections are conditions that the body would normally be able to fight off but can be harmful to people who have HIV. People living with HIV may notice that they frequently get colds, flu, and fungal infections. They might also experience the following stage 3 HIV symptoms:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • persistent diarrhoea
  • chronic fatigue
  • rapid weight loss
  • a cough and shortness of breath
  • recurring fever, chills, and night sweats
  • rashes, sores, or lesions in the mouth or nose, on the genitals, or under the skin
  • prolonged swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • memory loss, confusion, or neurological disorders

Get Tested
People who are sexually active or have shared needles should consider asking their healthcare provider for an HIV test, especially if they notice any of the symptoms presented here. Yearly testing is generally recommended for people who use intravenous drugs, people who are sexually active and have multiple partners, and people who have had sex with someone who has HIV.

Testing is quick and simple and only requires a small sample of blood. Your local doctor, family planning clinic and various community health centres offer HIV tests. A home HIV test kit, such as the Well Revolution at-home HIV Test, can be ordered online. These home tests don’t require sending the sample to a lab. A simple test provides results in 15 minutes.

Protecting against HIV
It’s crucial to be aware of the symptoms of HIV and get tested if there’s a possibility of having contracted the virus. Avoiding exposure to bodily fluids potentially carrying the virus is one means of prevention.

These measures can help reduce the risk of contracting HIV:

  • Use condoms for vaginal and anal sex. When used correctly, condoms are highly effective at protecting against HIV.
  • Avoid intravenous drugs. Try not to share or reuse needles. 
  • Take precautions. Always assume that blood might be infectious. Use latex gloves and other barriers for protection.
  • Get tested for HIV. Getting tested is the only way to know whether or not HIV has been transmitted. Those who test positive for HIV can get the treatment they need as well as take steps to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

How do you treat it? 

HIV can be controlled by antiretroviral medication. Treatments are available for secondary infections and some cancers. At this point in time, there is no cure or immunisation available.

Medications such as PrEP can help prevent transmission.

How will this affect my partner/s? 

You should practise safe sex with your partner to prevent transmission. Do not share needles with a partner. Partners should have an HIV test.